Docent relishes role leading tours of historic landmark
As a child growing up in Santa Barbara, Diana Washburn has many fond memories of Fiesta activities at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse — “getting dressed up in costumes, watching the Spanish dancers, being mesmerized by the setting. It was magical.”
“When I was at Santa Barbara Junior High and Santa Barbara High, we used to go over there to ride the elevator, which was a big deal in those days. Other buildings didn’t have elevators. We would take it to the top and look around the city.”
Since the Santa Barbara native became a courthouse docent in 2017, her appreciation for the National Historic Landmark, which was completed in 1929 after the disastrous 1925 earthquake, has taken on a whole new dimension.
“I drive by it frequently from my home on the lower Riviera, and I never get tired of it,” Ms. Washburn told the News-Press. “When out-of town guests come to see me and I tell them I am going to take them on a tour of the courthouse, their first reaction is ‘Why would we want to see a courthouse?’
“Afterward, they can’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Ms, Washburn said she learned about the courthouse docent program from her friend Shyama Osborne.
“She said, ‘You love history. You love architecture. You love interacting with people.’ It sounded fascinating, so I signed up,” said Ms. Washburn, whose grandparents, parents John and Eugenia Prola, and daughter were married at the courthouse. “I have a picture of my parents standing in front of the Lawyers’ Arch near the intersection of Anacapa and East Figuroa streets.”
Before she could begin to lead monthly tours for the public, Ms. Washburn had to complete a rigorous training course, which she described as “a wonderful experience. I was amazed at how in-depth it was. I learned so much. It felt like a university class with a lot of reading.
“I started seeing architectural features I never noticed before and learned about its history. I became more aware of the tile work not only in the courthouse but around the city.”
While leading tours before the pandemic canceled them, Ms. Washburn particularly enjoyed meeting people from all over the world.
“They were so friendly and appreciative. They wanted to give me tips and hugs,” she said. “It was thrilling to show them the Bisno Schall Clock Gallery, but I always warned them to cover their ears when the bells rang.”
Even though the courthouse is still closed to the public due to COVID-19, the docents continue to have monthly meetings and continuing education speakers via Zoom.
There are also Fiesta and Christmas parties and yearly field trips.
“Recently, we went to the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to see the ballroom ceiling painted by Giovanni Smeraldi, who painted the ceilings in the courthouse. It was a wonderful trip,” said Ms. Washburn, who earned her bachelor’s degree in art history at Long Beach State University and her teaching credential at UC Irvine.
After teaching in elementary schools in Costa Mesa for 10 years, she moved to Marin County. She worked for McGraw Hill Publishing Co. and did freelance modeling for 15 years.
“I was a member of the Mannequin League of Marin County, a nonprofit that donated to groups like Big Brothers and Big Sisters and other charitable organizations in the Bay Area,” said Ms. Washburn.
In 1999, she moved back to Santa Barbara with her mother, the late Ruth Krola, who had inherited the home Ms. Washburn’s grandparents had built in 1949.
“My plan was to get my mother settled, fix up the house and then move to Lake Tahoe, but I fell in love with Santa Barbara and stayed. As a child, I always took its beauty for granted. I never realized what an amazing place it was,” she said.
Determined to find a new career, Ms. Washburn became manager for the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs for Santa Barbara County, sponsored by the Tri-Counties Regional Center.
“My job was to recruit, train and place low-income seniors in schools and adult programs for those with special needs. It was such a joy and honor to work with those wonderful people,” said Ms. Washburn, who has a son and daughter and four grandchildren.
During this time she also became a member of the Rotary Club of Santa Barbara Sunrise “because I wanted to get involved with an organization that gave back locally and internationally.”
She also became a volunteer for C.A.R.E.4 Paws, whose mission is to provide services to animals and their owners.
The owner of Oliver, a 3-year-old Havanese cocker spaniel, is spearheading the installation of a dog drinking fountain at the Sheffield Reservoir.
After retiring from the Foster Grandparent program, Ms. Washburn traveled for a year, visiting the Greek Islands, France, Hawaii and Turkey.
‘It was after I got back that Shyama suggested I become a courthouse docent, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Even though the courthouse is still closed to the public, visitors can take a self-guided virtual exterior tour, using hand-held devices or home computers.
“We also have a virtual Mural Room tour available, as well as other interesting website experiences coming soon. All information is available at www.sbcourthouse.org. Especially check the tours page, and look soon for ‘Our Story.’ Our courthouse tours sign on Anacapa Street in front of the building and the materials we provide to the Visitor Center have a QR code that directs visitors to our home page, and we also have a link in Tripadvisor and Visit Santa Barbara.”
Ms. Washburn said that during frequent walks around the neighborhood with her dog, she stops to chat with people.
“When I mention that I’m a docent at the courthouse, they say that they have never been there. I tell them they must go, and I’ve even taken them on special tours.”